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The Atlantic Monthly | March 2001
Big Bend

A short story
by Bill Roorbach
hat night Mr. Hunter (the crew all called him Mr. Hunter) lay quietly awake for two hours before the line of his thoughts finally made the twitching conversion to mirage and hallucination that heralded ease and melting sleep.

What had kept him awake was primarily a worry that he was being too much the imperious old businessman, the self he thought he'd conquered—even killed—in retirement, the part of himself that poor Betty had least admired (though this was the part that brought home the bacon). This area of worry he packaged with a resolution only to ask questions for at least one day of work—no statements or commands or observations or commentary, no matter what, to Stubby or anyone else; no matter what, questions only.

Stubby, who was now snortingly asleep in the next bunk of their nice but spare staff accommodations here at Big Bend National Park, was not hard to compartmentalize: Mr. Hunter would simply stop laughing or smiling at or even acknowledging Stubby's stupid jokes and jibes, would not rise to bait (politics primarily), would not pretend to believe Stubby's stories, especially those about his exploits with women. Scott was Stubby's actual name. He was fifty-three, an old hippie who had never cut his ponytail or jettisoned the idea that corporations were ruining the world, and who called the unlikely women of his tall tales "chicks" and "chiquitas." Strange bedfellows, Stubby and Mr. Hunter, who shared a two-bed room in the workers' quarters.

Another cause of sleeplessness was Martha Kolodny of Chicago, here in blazing, gorgeous, blooming, desolate Big Bend on an amateur ornithological quest. Stubby called her "Mothra," which had been funny at first, given Ms. Kolodny's size and thorough, squawking presence, but which was funny no longer, given the startling fact of Mr. Hunter's crush on her, which had arrived unannounced after his long conversation with her just this evening, in the middle of a huge laugh from Ms. Kolodny, a huge and happy, hilarious laugh from the heart of her very handsome heart. The Kolodny compartment in his businesslike brain he closed and latched with a simple instruction to himself: Do not have crushes, Mr. Hunter. He was too old for crushes ("sneakers" he'd called them in high school, class of 1944). And Ms. Kolodny was not the proper recipient of a crush in any case. She was under fifty and certainly over 150 pounds, Mr. Hunter's own lifelong adult weight, and married, completely married, two large rings on the proper finger, giant gemstones blazing.

Still other concerns, carefully placed by Mr. Hunter one by one in their nighttime lockers: the house in Atlanta (Arnie would take care of the yard and the gardens, and Miss Feather would clean the many rooms, as always, in his absence); the neglect of his retirement portfolio (Fairchild Ltd. had always needed prodding but had always gotten the job done, spectacularly in the past several years); the coming Texas summer, a summer he might rather miss.

Oh, but Betty, his wife, his girl, his one and only love, his lover, his helpmate, his best friend, mother of their three (thoroughly adult) children, dead of stroke three years. They had planned all they would do when he retired; and when he did retire, she died. So he was mourning not only the loss of her but also the loss of his long-held vision of the future, the thought that one distant day she would bury him. No compartment was large enough to compartmentalize Bitty (as he always called her), but he achieved a kind of soft peace, like sleep, when he thought of her. He no longer experienced the sharp pains and gouged holes everywhere in him and the tears every night. Count your blessings, Mr. Hunter, he had thought wryly, and had melted a little at one broad edge of his consciousness, and had soon fallen asleep in the West Texas night.

he National Park Service hired senior citizens, as part of its policy of not discriminating based on age and so forth, for pleasant jobs at above minimum wage. And because they didn't accept volunteers for the real, honest work that Mr. Hunter had decided to escape into for a salutary year, he signed on for pay, though he certainly didn't need the money. And here in Texas, Mr. Hunter, rich as Croesus and older, found himself shoveling sand up into the back of the smallest dump truck he'd ever seen, half shovelfuls so as not to hurt his back, and no one minded how little he did. He was old in the eyes of his fellows on the work crew—a seventysomething, as Stubby pointed out, working for $6.13 an hour.

The crew was motley, all right: Mr. Hunter, who was assumed to be the widower he was, and assumed to be needy, which of course he was not (in fact, the more he compared himself with his new colleagues, the wealthier he knew himself to be). Dylan Briscoe, painfully polite, adrift after college, who had wanted to go to Yellowstone to follow his ranger girlfriend but had been assigned here the previous summer. He lost his girl, met a new girl, spent the winter in Texas with Juanita from Lajitas, a plainspoken Mexican-American woman of no beauty, hovered near Mr. Hunter on every job, and gave Mr. Hunter his crew name—Mr. Hunter—because Dylan was constitutionally unable to associate the name Dennis with such an old geezer. Freddy was a brainy, obnoxious jock taking a semester off from the University of Alabama. He was leery of Mr. Hunter, disdainful of Stubby, horrible on the subject of women ("gash," he called them collectively), resentful of work, smelling of beer from the start of the day, yet well read and decently educated despite all. Luis Marichal, the crew boss, about whom much was assumed (jail, knife fights, mayhem) but little was actually known, was liked by all, despite his otherness, for saying "Quit complaining" in a scary voice to Freddy more than once. He always had a gentle smile for Mr. Hunter. Finally, Stubby, short and fat and truly good-humored. Nothing needed to be assumed about Stubby, because Stubby told all: he had recently beat a drug habit, was once a roadie for the Rolling Stones, had been married thrice, had a child from each marriage, had worked many tech jobs in the early days of computers, had fallen into drink after the last divorce or before it, and then into cocaine, and then into heroin, had ended up in the hospital for four months in profound depression, had recovered, had "blown out the toxins," had found that work with his hands and back made him sane. And sane he was, he said. This work crew in Texas had made him so.

All of them earned $6.13 an hour, excepting Dylan, hired on some student-intern program with a lower pay scale, too shy to ask for parity, and of course excepting Luis, who'd been crew here many years though he wasn't thirty, and was foreman—Luis made probably nine bucks an hour, with four young kids to support. And in a way excepting Mr. Hunter, who in addition to his $6.13 an hour from the Seniors-in-the-Parks Program was watching his retirement lump sum grow into a mountain in eight figures.

Mr. Hunter shoveled sand with the rest of them, a wash of sand from the last big rain which had made nearly a dune on the shoulder of the road for a hundred yards, a dune dangerous to bicyclists. The crew shoveled into the small dump truck, and Luis drove, if rolling the truck ahead a few feet at a time could be called driving. Mr. Hunter wore comfortable and expensive relaxed-fit jeans. He preferred shoveling to the jobs the other seniors got: cashier at the postcard stand, official greeter, filing associate, inventory specialist, cushy nonsense along those lines.

Mr. Hunter shoveled as lightly as anybody and did not laugh at Stubby's stories and thought of Martha Kolodny for no reason he could make sense of—her laugh from the center of her heart and soul, and her large frame that oughtn't to be alluring to him at all but was indeed, and her braininess. Intelligence always was sexy to him. She was as smart as Bitty and as quick, though Bitty would have called her noisy.

Big Bend here in April after a wet winter was in thorough bloom: prickly pear, cholla, century plants, scores of others, colors picked from the sunset and the sandstone cliffs and the backs of birds. Mr. Hunter, thinking to get some conversation started, asked his first question of the day, knowing the answer in advance: "Dylan, what can you tell us about the subject of love?"

Dylan blushed and said, "Juanita," with evident pride and huge love for his woman. And everyone at once said, "Juanita from Lajitas," which was fun to say and which had become a chant and which they knew Dylan liked to hear. Not even Freddy would say anything that might harm Dylan-boy's spirit.

"You are like me," Luis said. "A steady heart and a solid love."

And Stubby, damn him, said, "Mr. Hunter, what about you?"

"Have you noticed that I'm only asking questions today?" Mr. Hunter replied.

"But I saw you stalking Mothra," Stubby said. "Mothra, Queen of the Bird-watchers' Bus. She's a cute one, she is. Tall drink of water, she is. I'll bet she was one athlete in her day! Iron Woman! Anchor in the freestyle relay! Bench press two hundred pounds, easy. What do you say, Mr. Hunter? You were gabbing with her nearly three hours yesterday in the parking lot there. You were! No, no, sir, you were! You're a better man than I! More power to you! She won't give me the time of day; with you she's laughing and shouting and joking! And she was scratching her nose the whole time, which Keith Richards once told me is the sure sign you're going to get a little wiggle in."

All work (such as it was) ceased. Mr. Hunter made a game smile and smiled some more and enjoyed the breeze and the attention. He asked a question: "Do you know that Plato's Republic begins with a discussion of just this subject—of love and sex? And do you know that one of the fellows sitting around Socrates says something like 'I saw Sophocles'—the old poet, he calls him—'I saw the old poet down in town the other day, three score and ten, and I asked him: At your age, Sophocles, what of love?' And do you know what Sophocles told that man? Sophocles told that man, 'I feel I have been released by a mad and furious beast!"'

The crew stood with eyebrows raised a long time, absorbing this tale from the mysterious void of time that was Mr. Hunter's life.

After a long silence Stubby said, "Oh, fuck you."

Mr. Hunter knew what Stubby meant: the implied analogy was faulty. And Stubby was right. Martha Kolodny was certainly on Mr. Hunter's mind, Martha Kolodny of all women, and the mad and furious beast had hold of Mr. Hunter certainly. It wasn't as if he'd had no erections in the past three affectionless years—but the one he'd had this morning caught his attention surely. And it wasn't all about erections, either. It was that laugh from the heart and the bright conversation and something more: Martha Kolodny could see Mr. Hunter, and he hadn't been seen clearly in three years. Nor had his particular brand of jokes been laughed at, or his ideas praised, nor had someone noticed his hair (still full and shiny, and bone-in-the-desert white) or looked at his hands so, or gazed into his eyes.

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2001; Big Bend - 01.03; Volume 287, No. 3; page 60-67.